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FARMINGTON — Their actions are woven into history.

Local Peace Corps volunteers say serving their country has shaped the trajectory of their lives and helped people across the world. Here are two of their stories.

Michael O'Neill didn't know what to expect when his plane touched down in Ghana in 1971.

He had looked up the country, and Bawku, the village where he was to be stationed, in an atlas. He knew little else.

In the coming months as he taught school children and dug wells, the region's tribal groups and cultures took hold of his senses and transformed his life.

O'Neill served from 1971 to 1974 in what today is Burkina Faso after graduating from Loyola College, now part of Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.

"The Peace Corps looked like a good option (after graduation)," he said.

But he was nearly overwhelmed as he stepped into the classroom full of Ghanan children to teach biology, chemistry and general science on his first day.

"It was just ... how can I be one day ahead of them preparing (lessons)?" he said. "It was pretty daunting."

O'Neill taught at a boarding school but lived a few miles away, riding a bicycle to the campus each day. There was no electricity in his house and he had to return to the campus after dark to do his preparatory work.

"It was a dark ride," he said.

O'Neill also helped with the school's sports program.

"I wasn't a coach or anything," he said. "I was familiar with American style football. They had soccer."


In 1972, he asked to be transferred to Burkina Faso, a French speaking country.

"I must have learned something in Montreal because when I got to the village we were all on the same (French) level," he said.

The Peace Corps program in Burkina Faso was newer, established in the mid 1960s, O'Neill said.

"There wasn't anyone there to hold your hand," he said.

Nevertheless, he found the villagers welcoming. Before he arrived, residents heard there was a volunteer coming.

"Someone built an adobe house for me," O'Neill said. "It was quite hot. It had one of those corrugated metal roofs so I would take the mattress and sleep outside."

As a well digger, he would meet with village chiefs in the region and development workers from the country's government to plan where to dig.

"We changed their lives dramatically," he said. "It was clean water. Women didn't have to walk miles to get a bucket of water anymore, and it was clean. It didn't come from a pond or a puddle."

Although he completed his Peace Corps assignment in 1974, O'Neill said the experience has stayed with him.

"I worked in Africa for nearly 20 years after," he said.

He met his wife, Amy, who served in the Peace Corps in Niger from 1979 to 1981 at a corps party. Their oldest son was born in Toledo, Ohio. Then the family moved to Kenya where their second child was born.

"Because of that experience, my whole career has been directed in the international arena," O'Neill said.

Today he is a professor and the Jose Fernandez Chair of New Mexico State University's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences. He operates out of the university's Agricultural Research Station in Farmington.

Although he settled down in the Four Corners area, his eye has not left the international arena. Today he is involved in a multinational project for small scale irrigation work in Kenya and Ethiopia.

"We're working on the proposals," he said.

More than anything, however, he says that his Peace Corps experience has taught him that Western training and science can only get him so far in his research.

"A lot of that indigenous knowledge is ..." and he paused briefly. "We don't have all the answers."

In the last 52 years, the Peace Corps has been engaging everyday Americans and drawing them into the international arena.

In recognition of the agency's importance and the efforts of local volunteers, Mayor Tommy Roberts declared Feb. 24 through March 2 as Peace Corps Week in Farmington at a recent city council meeting.

One Farmington local remembers getting involved shortly after the corps was created by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

From 1961 to 1964, Donna Thatcher, of Farmington's Riverside Nature Center, served with the second group of Peace Corps volunteers in the Philippines on the islands of Panay and Mindanao teaching "English as a Second Language," science and college preparatory courses. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1961 with degrees in Biology and Anthropology.

"I heard Kennedy's speech (at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) proposing the Peace Corps on the radio," she said. "I was just so inspired by it that I wrote to find out how to apply."

During the school year she taught in a town called Cabatuan on Panay, and would travel to Mindanao to teach college preparatory courses.The Philippine government asked the volunteers to focus on elementary school science education, she said.

"The government had just decided to cover science, but no (elementary school) teachers in the Philippines had science teaching training," Thatcher said.

She spent her first year teaching English and transitioned to teaching science in her second year.

Cabatuan, she remembered, had its unique challenges.

"It was just a small agricultural village," she said. "There was no electricity. People near the center of town had running water, but the water only ran for a few hours each day. You had to know what time to get your water."

That water was not purified and had to be boiled before drinking, she said.

"We used these high-efficiency kerosene lanterns for light," Thatcher said. "That made teaching science a challenge because we had to cover electricity. It was still a theoretical concept for them. The only exposure they had was maybe to batteries in flashlights."

Getting to school each day was also a challenge. The region was separated into little barrios--small townships or hamlets, each separated by the numerous rivers. There were no bridges, she said, so everyone had to cross them on foot.

"During the rainy season, the rivers were so high they were challenging even for adults," she said. "We would cross in groups. Sometimes we would link arms, but mostly everyone just crossed in a group and looked out for each other ... But most of the time, it was about knee deep."

Life on Mindanao was equally interesting, Thatcher said.

Mindanao was and still is the only area of the Philippines with a large Muslim population.

"People were practicing more of a Malaysian Islam," she said. "In a way, to us it seems like a more liberal form. There was no veiling of women, or keeping them at home. People were friendly and interested in us as Americans. The Muslim people had not known any non-Muslims that weren't Western missionaries trying to convert them, so they really opened up."

After the Peace Corps, Thatcher worked as a Girl Scout professional coordinator on the Navajo Reservation and in Albuquerque before working for REI and finally for the city of Farmington.

Her Peace Corps experience helped her immensely in her work on the reservation, she said.

"It was why I was comfortable on (the reservation) when I got back because I was used to being an ethnic minority immersed in another culture," she said. "It was really a good start for the things I've done in my life ever since."